"Jesus the Beloved Son"
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts Octoer 1, 2006
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2006 by Mark D. Roberts
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Scripture Reading: Luke 3:21-22
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
A Life-Changing Declaration
Sixteen years ago, almost to the day, something happened that changed my life dramatically. It began with a phone call from Dale Larson of Irvine Presbyterian Church. He was on the pastor nominating committee, and wondered if I he could talk with me about my interest in becoming IPC's pastor. Before long I found myself preparing my pastoral dossier, making a stealth visit to an IPC worship service, and getting slated for an interview with the nominating committee, better known as the PNC.
That interview was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Of course it was the first interview I'd ever had for a pastoral position, so that helps to account for its specialness. But something else happened that night in Mike and Sara Hart's living room. I sensed a deep bond, as if my heart and the hearts of the committee were strangely linked. Though I had come to the interview seriously doubting that they'd want me or that I'd want to come to Irvine, I left thinking this might be God's call on my life.
And then I heard nothing from the committee for three, long weeks. Not a word. No "Hey you did great!" phone call. No "We'll get back to you soon" note. For three, long weeks I wondered if I had imagined all that stuff about a deep bond with the committee. But then, finally, I got the message I had been waiting for. The committee wanted to take the next step with me, which involved having me preach at a church down here so they could check me out.
I did preach that sermon in early January 1991. And then there was another all-day interview. And then another three-hour interview. Finally, in late February, I heard the good news that the committee wanted to call me as pastor. One thing led to another, and finally, on June 30, 1991, the members of this congregation gathered along with my family and friends for my installation. The tumultuous process that had begun nine months earlier was finally coming to an end. I was to become the official pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church.
About an hour into my installation service, after singing, Scripture readings, and a sermon by our founding pastor, Ben Patterson, the pastors and elders gathered around to lay hands on me and offer prayer. After the "Amen," Jerry Tankersley, the pastor in charge of the proceedings addressed me: "Mark, you are now a minister of Word and Sacrament in and for this congregation. Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him."
I can still hear those words echoing in my memory: "You are now a minister of Word and Sacrament in and for this congregation." Packed into this short, simple sentence were dozens of implications for what I was now supposed to be and do. That sentence gave me the essence of my pastoral job description: preaching God's Word and administering the sacraments. It also identified the primary scope of my ministry: in and for this congregation.
"You are now a minister of Word and Sacrament in and for this congregation." Those words marked a huge change in my life. They were some of the most exciting, inspiring, overwhelming, and terrifying words I've ever heard. Those words empowered me, a 33-year-old with plenty of hair and only a couple of grey ones, to take on a challenge far bigger than anything I had faced before in life.
Declared to Be God's Son
If I was blown away by hearing "You are now a minister of Word and Sacrament in and for this congregation," I wonder how Jesus felt when He emerged from the waters of the Jordan on that momentous day sometime around 30 A.D. I felt hands coming upon my head. Jesus felt the presence and power of the Holy Spirit descending upon Him. My new identity was proclaimed by Jerry Tankersley. Jesus got the word straight from heaven.
What did God say to Jesus? "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." Now you've got to admit that this would be a mind-blower, even if Jesus already knew of his divine parentage. Here is a divine declaration, not only of Jesus's distinctive identity as Son of God, but also of God's delight in Him.
Yet I want to offer a word of caution here. When you and I hear what Jesus once heard from heaven, we tend to imply things that were not originally intended and to miss some of the main points. For example, when I hear "You are my Son," I can't help but think in terms of fifth-century Trinitarian theology, with Jesus as the second member of the Trinity, a being both fully God and fully human. Now it's not wrong to think this way, because this is a true theological description of Jesus's nature. But Luke 3:22 offers only a hint of the theological formulations yet to come. The main point of this passage was not Jesus's Trinitarian identity, but his unique messianic calling.
This calling would be apparent to someone who knew the Hebrew Scriptures intimately, someone like, well, Jesus, for example, or Luke, writing a few decades later. You see, the heavenly voice quite intentionally used language that echoed key passages in our Old Testament. This means we'll only get the gist of God's declaration if we have those texts clearly in mind.
An Echo of Psalm 2
For example, the opening phrase of the divine declaration, "You are my Son," is an echo of Psalm 2. Let me read a portion of that Psalm, including the quoted verse:
1 Why do the nations conspire,
and the peoples plot in vain?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and his anointed, saying,
3 "Let us burst their bonds asunder,
and cast their cords from us."
4 He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the LORD has them in derision.
5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
6 "I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill."
7 I will tell of the decree of the LORD:
He said to me, "You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
This psalm focuses on the Lord's anointed, in Hebrew, mashiach, or as we usually say, messiah. Here, the anointed one is the king of Israel, to whom the Lord says, "You are my son; today I have begotten you." No Jewish reader would have seen this pointing out the divinity of the king. Rather, calling him the "son of God" was a way of indicating God's election and blessing.
So, when the heavenly voice identified Jesus as the Son of God, the first and most obvious sense of this would have been that He was the king anointed by God. He was the Messiah who would rule over Israel, and ultimately, over all nations. Of course this fits perfectly with what we learned last week about John's proclamation of the coming of God's kingdom. Now Jesus is identified as the divinely anointed king through whom God has come to reign.
An Echo of Isaiah 42
But there is more here than just a quotation of Psalm 2 and its identification of Jesus as the kingly messiah. Besides "You are my Son, the Beloved," Jesus also heard, "with you I am well pleased." This came as the Holy Spirit descended upon Him. With these things in mind, listen to the beginning of Isaiah 42:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
(verse 1, italics added))
The Servant of God is one in whom God's soul delights. The Hebrew verb in Isaiah 42:1 can also be translated "in whom God's soul is pleased." God's pleasure in His Servant is intimately connected with the sending of the Spirit upon the Servant.
So then, Jesus is not only the divinely anointed king of Psalm 2, but also the Servant of God of Isaiah who has received God's Spirit. Moreover, like the Messiah of Psalm 2, the Servant will bring forth justice to all nations, though in a surprisingly inclusive way. In Isaiah 49, the Lord reveals that his Servant is to be "a light to the nations, that [God's] salvation may reach to the end of the earth" (v. 6).
The most shocking thing about the Servant of God in Isaiah is his calling to suffer. He is the one, according to chapter 53, who "was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities" (v. 5). Through his suffering, the Servant will bear "the sin of many" (v. 12), thus making "many righteous" (v. 11).
Therefore, by identifying Jesus as the Son of God, by sending the Spirit upon Him, and then by referring to Him in language once used for the Suffering Servant, God lays out in very few words both the central identity and the central mission of Jesus. He is the Son of God, the Messiah through whom God will bring His kingdom. And Jesus is the Servant of God who, through His suffering, will bring salvation both to Israel and to all nations.
Now I'm not suggesting that those standing on the banks of the Jordan on that momentous day understood all of this when they heard the heavenly voice. In fact, I'm quite sure none of them besides Jesus Himself grasped the significance of the blending of Psalm 2 and Isaiah 42. It's likely that the crowds understood the messianic king part and stopped right there. But, with the clarity of hindsight, we can see how, even at the very beginning of Jesus's ministry, God was pointing Him, not only toward kingship, but also toward crucifixion. The anointed Son of God would fulfill His messianic calling, not by kicking the Romans out of Judea, but by dying on a Roman cross as the Suffering Servant of God. In this way God's kingdom would fully come.
Yet the heavenly voice also makes it clear that Jesus was not God's whipping boy, the victim of God's vengeful justice. Sometimes you'll hear critics of Christianity espouse this view. They fail to grasp that, on the one hand, Jesus is God's beloved Son, not some arbitrary victim of divine wrath. On the other hand, the critics fail to see that Jesus's sonship is more than mere royalty. What the heavenly voice in Luke 3 intimates is revealed more fully elsewhere in Scripture. Jesus is the unique Son of God. His relationship with God the Father means that His death on the cross is, in truth, God suffering in our place. But, alas, I'm getting ahead of myself in the story. Much more on this later!
Knowing That We Are God's Beloved Children
As I've reflected upon Luke's account of Jesus's baptism, I've found myself feeling envious of Jesus. Honestly, I wish I could hear God's voice as He defined my identity and ministry. And I'd love to hear from God Himself that He loves me and is pleased with me. Can you relate? Don't you think it would be wonderful, indeed, life-transforming, to actually hear God say, "You are one of my beloved children, and I am very pleased with you"?
I believe all of us would like to hear this. But this is especially true if You find yourself doubting God's love for you. Or if you have a hard time believing that God is actually pleased with you. I struggle with this sometimes. Maybe you do to.
Brothers and sisters, here's the good news: through Jesus Christ, you are a beloved child of God. In fact, God wants us to know that we are His beloved children and that He takes pleasure in us. That's one of the reasons Jesus came as the unique Son of God. Because of who He is and what he accomplished as the Messiah and Servant of God, when we put our faith in Him, then He gives us "power to become children of God," as it says in John 1:12. Jesus taught us imitate Him in praying to God as our Father. Moreover, even as the Spirit descended upon Jesus, so God has given His Holy Spirit to us. One of the chief works of the Spirit in our lives is, according to Romans 8:16, to bear witness "that we are children of God." The first letter of John adds this marvelous summary: "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and this is what we are" (1 John 3:1; italics added).
Isn't this amazing? Jesus, the Son of God, gives us power to become God's children. The Holy Spirit bears witness that we are God's children. And God the Father shows us His great love by calling us His children. This means we've got the whole Trinity pulling for us. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit are all helping us to know at the deepest place of our hearts that we are God's beloved children.
Sometimes this knowledge comes slowly as we spend years walking with God. Yet sometimes this awareness comes in unexpected and dramatic ways. Perhaps the most astounding case I've ever experienced happened many years ago when I was an associate pastor at Hollywood Pres. After a Sunday evening healing service we invited people to come forward for prayer. That night the prayer team wasn't going to ask what people needed. Rather, we were going to lay our hands on people and pray silently for them, trusting the Lord to do His will in their lives.
A man of about twenty-five years, I'll call him Steve, came forward and knelt at the chancel. I approached, laid my hands on his shoulders, and began to pray quietly. As I did, the words from Jesus's baptism flooded my mind, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." Every time I tried to get these words out of my head, they came right back. Finally I figured God was up to something. So I bent over and whispered to Steve, "I don't know if this will make any sense to you, but as I'm praying for you, I keep hearing these words from the Bible in my head. It seems as if God wants you to hear them. So, near as I can tell, this is what God wants you to know tonight: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
Instantly Steve's eyes filled with tears. He began weeping, almost wailing, which was a little awkward in the otherwise silent sanctuary. I didn't know what I had done. And, frankly, I was afraid I had really blown it. But I kept praying quietly, hoping that God might redeem my foolishness. Finally, after several minutes, Steve stopped crying. He turned to me and said, "I suppose you wonder what just happened."
"Yes," I answered, "I do. I'm sorry if I did something to hurt you."
"On the contrary," he replied, "I believe what happened tonight was a wonderful miracle." He went on to explain why he had come for prayer. He grew up as a pastor's kid, one who could never live up to the expectations of his father's church, or even of his strict father. Steve had spent much of his emotional life trying to earn the approval he never received. He decided to go to seminary, partly out of a sense of calling, partly to make his father happy, and partly because he yearned to know that God loved him. But in spite of all of his effort, it seemed that he just couldn't get the love he needed either from his dad or from God. Steve had come to our Sunday night healing service because he could be anonymous. He was in a desperate place, crying out to know God's love for him. That's why he came forward for prayer.
He ended by saying, "If I had told you what I needed tonight, and you said what you did about me being God's beloved son, I don't think I would have believed it was from God. But you don't know me, and you had no idea why I came forward. I believe that God answered my prayers tonight in a way I can't deny. Now I know that He loves me, that he is pleased even with me." And with that he began to cry again. I joined him, utterly blown away by the mercy and love of God.
My friends, it doesn't always happen quite like this. I think you know that. But I believe that God can and will often do things like this if we risk opening our hearts to Him. Why do I believe this? Because that's the sort of God we have. Because Father, Son, and Spirit are working together so that You might know you are a beloved child of God. This is the truth. And it's a truth that will change you forever if you let it permeate your being.